In the adaptation of his upcoming biography, Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep, published by Vanity Fair, author Michael Schulman reveals that while Streep fought to make changes to her character, Joanna, to make her more sympathetic, Hoffman, who played Ted, would snap at her, chiding her to get on with filming. Worse, he taunted her about her recently deceased lover, filmmaker John Cazale, and once slapped her before a crucial scene.
“On the second day, they continued shooting the opening scene, when Ted follows the hysterical Joanna into the hallway. They shot the bulk of it in the morning and, after lunch, set up for some reaction shots,” Schulman writes in the book. “Dustin and Meryl took their positions on the other side of the apartment door. Then something happened that shocked not just Meryl but everyone on set. Right before their entrance, Dustin slapped her hard across the cheek, leaving a red mark.” Streep continued with the scene.
To put that moment in perspective, Hoffman, then 41 years old to Streep’s 29, had already been making movies for a decade. And not just movies, but critical and box-office hits, from The Graduate in 1967, to Midnight Cowboy two years later. Then in 1974, he kicked off a string of successes: Lenny, All the President’s Men and Marathon Man. The method actor was one of the biggest stars in the world, with three Oscar nods under his belt.
Streep, on the other hand, was an ingénue who’d made her bones on the Broadway stage before jumping to films. The first time anyone saw her on the big screen was in 1977’s Julia, and within a year she had impressed audiences and critics enough in The Deer Hunter (also starring Cazale) to earn her first Academy Award nomination. Still, she wasn’t exactly a household name. The fact that she’d spoken up to modify her character at all was a huge risk for an actress on the pinnacle of success.
Kramer vs. Kramer changed all that. As Ted and Joanna Kramer, the unhappily married parents of a moppet named Billy (Justin Henry), Hoffman and Streep played relatable, complicated people. In a move that was shocking for its time, Joanna leaves Billy in the care of his father, who then has to navigate dating, household chores, and Billy’s physical and emotional care all on his own. When Joanna returns, demanding custody of her son, they enter a brutal legal battle that gives the film its title.
The film was such a hit that it picked up nine Academy Award nominations, including nods for Henry and co-star Jane Alexander, who plays Ted’s neighbor. It also won best picture, director, screenplay, and gave Hoffman and Streep their first Oscars. But its influence didn’t stop there. Divorce became a prominent theme in 1980s films, from dramas like Ordinary People (’80) and Irreconcilable Differences (’84), to lighter fare like The Accidental Tourist (’88) and the black comedy The War of the Roses (’89).
Kramer changed its stars’ lives too. Hoffman’s next movie was a little film called Tootsie, which garnered 10 Oscar nominations, while Streep went on to the classic The French Lieutenant’s Woman, for which she, too, picked up a nod. Neither of their careers have cooled yet.
For his part, Hoffman has since expressed regret for the tenor on the Kramer set, telling the Hollywood Reporter in 2012, “I was getting divorced, I was partying with drugs and it depleted me in every way.”
Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep will be available on April 26 from HarperCollins Publishers.